Cambodia competes for its first Oscar this Sunday with director Rithy Panh’s “The Missing Picture.” With help from an unconventional set of actors, the film tells the story of the four years Panh spent in labor camps during the Khmer Rouge regime.
In his powerful and imaginative documentary, nominated for best foreign language film, Panh, the country’s best-known filmmaker, enlisted about 700 clay figurines to re-create scenes from this dark period of Cambodian history, 1975 to 1979.
He first embarked on a traditional documentary but ran into a problem: There weren’t enough images of what he wanted to explore, the people and places in that time. “Most of the images in Cambodia were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge,” said Panh, speaking Thursday by phone after arriving in Los Angeles.
He then discovered that Sarith Mang, a set designer on his film crew, could sculpt beautifully, evoking the imagery of Chagall and Miro. Panh asked Mang to make models of the house where he grew up and of his family. Excited by the results, the filmmaker knew immediately how he wanted to make his movie. “I feel these figurines are very expressive, something very poetic,” he said.
The medium also resonated with him, he said, because in Cambodian culture, “souls are everywhere” — in the trees, rivers and mountains. When people die in a cruel way, their souls are believed to wander in the natural world. Using figurines of clay, he said, brought a deeper sense of connection to his work. “After the film, these figurines go back again to the earth,” he said, adding with a laugh that he doesn’t mind that they won’t last forever.
Under the Khmer Rouge, an estimated 1.7 million people — a fifth of the country’s population — died from overwork, starvation, illness or execution. Panh was 13 when the regime, led by communist dictator Pol Pot, came to power. He lost both his parents, and all but one of his four siblings, an older sister.
“The Missing Picture,” adapted from his 2013 autobiography, “The Elimination,” is a remembrance of his loved ones, as he navigates the tragedy of those years.
Harrowing anecdotes — in one scene, a 9-year-old child denounces his starving mother for picking mangoes, and watches as she is taken away forever — mix with flashbacks to Panh’s idyllic pre–Khmer Rouge childhood in Phnom Penh. The film recalls memories of play with his siblings; the smell of caramel and cooking fish; and how his father, a teacher, loved French poetry.
He also uses black-and-white archival propaganda film, which shows the labor camps as well as the deserted streets of Phnom Penh; images of Pol Pot and his cadres smiling, clapping and exhibiting their eerie habit of avoiding eye contact with one another; and pigs ambling across a deserted library’s front lawn.
Panh doesn’t narrate the film — that’s done by French actor Randal Douc — but it’s told from his perspective. The soberly delivered lines are direct, elegiac and, at times, wryly understated in order to point out moments of dark absurdity. For instance, cars — capitalist objects rejected by the Khmer Rouge — are “re-educated.” In one re-created scene, we see an overturned car used as a dam.
In the Khmer Rouge era, Cambodia’s artistic community was decimated. Intellectuals, artists, actors, directors and singers were executed or sent to “re-education camps,” under the regime’s extreme policies to establish an agrarian utopia. “The Khmer Rouge didn’t just kill people — they killed the culture, the spirit of a country,” said Panh.
Remaking the country’s lost cultural heritage has been important to him, as has examining the genocide through filmmaking. In “S21” (2003), Panh interviews former inmates and guards of the secret Phnom Penh prison where thousands were tortured and killed. His docudrama “The Burnt Theatre” (2005) follows a troupe who rehearse at the former national theater, which lost most of its artists during the Khmer Rouge.
Most of what has surfaced from the Khmer Rouge years is propaganda, radio programs and some of the films of King Sihanouk, one of the country’s first movie directors. In such a cultural vacuum, it’s all the more crucial to reconstruct the past for “our future and for our social cohesion,” says Panh. “A country cannot develop without a strong identity.”
Panh, who escaped Cambodia in 1979 and made his way to Paris, where he studied filmmaking, returned to Phnom Penh in 1990 to help create a film industry. Back then, there was no cinema to speak of; audiovisual entertainment revolved around karaoke. In 2006 he started the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center, which supports young documentary filmmakers and collects, restores, preserves and gives access to audiovisual documents. The goal is to help reconstruct memories of Cambodia’s history.
Last year, “The Missing Picture” won Cannes’ top prize in the Un Certain Regard category, which rewards more daring work. Panh was also honored as Asian Filmmaker of the Year at the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea.
Cedric Eloy, who heads the nonprofit Cambodian Film Commission, which works to develop the country’s film industry, calls Panh’s documentary a “movie of transmission” that can play a role in conveying the past in a country where as much as 70 percent of the population is under 30. The horrors of the genocide, he said, are difficult to grasp for the younger generation.
Panh said the film, which opens in the U.S. on March 19, is in a sense no longer his. “It’s the film of the whole country,” he said. “Anything that happens now for the film is all good news and more happiness.” One of his clay figurines — which he always carries with him, a representation of his character, depicted in a pink polka-dot T-shirt — will accompany him to the Oscars Sunday night. When asked who else will join him at the awards ceremony, he said exuberantly: “Everybody! We are all going.”